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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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The Printing Industry Exchange (PIE) staff are experienced individuals within the printing industry that are dedicated to helping and maintaining a high standard of ethics in this business. We are a privately owned company with principals in the business having a combined total of 103 years experience in the printing industry.

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Custom Printing: Trade Printers and Printing Brokers

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Among my other gigs (writer, graphic designer, art teacher), I am a commercial printing broker. I find the printer with the most appropriate skills and equipment for a particular client’s job. Unlike a printing sales rep for an individual company, I have access to printers across the country. Many of them I worked with when I was a production manager/art director in a local educational foundation. I have been doing this for 20 years (of my 44 years in printing and publications).

Recently, I found a new printer for a client’s post-graduate catalog, a newspaper-like, saddle-stitched product. (As I recall, I found this printer through the Printing Industry Exchange website.) Their prices were outstanding. When I approached the printer to discuss the job and make sure they worked with printing brokers, I was told they only work with printing brokers and printers. They are a “trade printer.” They do not sell to the end-user (i.e., my clients).

What Is a Trade Printer?

A trade printer lowers the prices it charges in order to be able to sell through brokers and commercial printers, whom they know will mark up their services. Trade printers want to be competitive. If they charged prices commensurate to those of other printers, the commissions I would add as a printing broker, or the mark-up a commercial printing supplier might add, would price them out of the market.

So what are the benefits of using a trade printer? First of all, they might have exceptional (and/or specialized) skills and knowledge. They might have exactly the right equipment for a particular job: such as the ability to case bind an ultra-short-run of a print book with specialized binding cloth, foil stamping, and such.

Most printers do not do all work in house. Die cutting, foil stamping, and case binding are usually “jobbed” out to a trade printer (or a trade shop). When a printer subcontracts printing or finishing tasks, he usually works with a trade shop (a shop that only does work for other printing professionals) rather than a regular commercial printer.

If You Are a Printer…

If you are a printer, you are responsible for the quality of the product or process provided by the trade printer or trade shop (as well as your own portion of the job). You get the financial benefit of your mark-up, but you have to choose the supplier wisely. This is exactly the same as if you were a printing client choosing a printer (checking references, reviewing printed samples–due diligence, if you will).

For your client, your taking responsibility for everything is an advantage. You are coordinating both your printing work and the subcontracted work, so there’s no chance of “finger pointing” if something goes wrong. Your client will just look to you, as the primary supplier, to make everything right. This is highly valuable to your client.

If you’re a printer without specialized equipment such as die cutting, foil stamping, or case binding capabilities, you may have no other option than to work with a trade shop. In fact, in one geographical region, a large number of local printers might go to the same bindery subcontractor and get quality work for a reasonable price without needing to buy this finishing equipment and pay labor costs for specialized work that may be required only occasionally.

(Any printer’s goal is to run all of the equipment on their pressroom floor all the time. If a printer only has occasional case binding work, it would be a financial drain to have the equipment and operators sitting idle. So subcontracting some work to a specialist—such as a dedicated bindery—would be a smart move.)

If You Are a Commercial Printing Broker…

This category of clients who frequent trade printers actually includes more than just printing brokers. It also includes graphic designers who offer to not only design their clients’ jobs but also get them printed. It also includes marketing agencies that provide complete marketing services (concept to marketing campaign). Anyone who resells the trade shop’s services fits into this category.

Trade printers will not contact your clients directly unless you ask them to (to clarify job details, resolve prepress technical issues, etc.). If you want them to, trade printers will even send out the final printed product in “blind cartons” (that is, with no distinguishing company logos).

However, trade printers are not set up to run credit checks, review client references, or extend credit to end users. So what that means if you’re a printing broker is that you have to front the money for a job yourself. You cannot do what I do: get a printer’s price, add your commission, and pass the total amount on to your client; and then bill the printer for the commission after the client has taken delivery of the job and has paid for the job in full. You buy the printing, and then you resell it.

For me, the financial arrangements noted above make sense. I can’t afford to front the money, so I don’t use trade shops. A graphic designer working from home might be in the same boat. She/he might also not have the financial wherewithal to front money for a large job. Hence, she/he might use a regular printer instead of a trade printer. (Granted, she/he might not have room in the overall price for a large mark-up, but she/he wouldn’t be putting any money at risk.) In contrast, a marketing agency probably does have sufficient cash flow to cover paying printers (so in this case they can work with trade printers).

Another way to grasp this distinction is as follows. If you work with a trade printer, you actually buy the service and then resell it to an end user. So when I say I’m a printing broker, what’s really true is that I’m an “agent.” The financial relationship (when I add my commission to a printers price, pass it on to the client, and then bill the printer for the commission after the client has taken delivery of the job and paid all bills) is between the printer and my client. I am more of a locator of skilled personnel and relevant equipment, an advocate for the client, and a consultant.

Why Work with a Printing Broker?

When I was the production manager/art director of a nonprofit educational foundation in the 1990s, I worked primarily with individual printers. I knew what each offered. We built mutually advantageous professional relationships. But I also worked with one printing broker. I went to him regularly because he offered superb prices, quality work, specialty services (he used to do multi-part forms for the organization, for which I otherwise did not have a reliable, reasonably-priced source). He offered suggestions I hadn’t considered for various projects. As they say in management-speak, he “added value.”

So here are some reasons clients might want to use a printing broker:

    1. The broker might also be a graphic designer, as noted earlier (i.e., one-stop shopping).


    1. The print broker might offer a wealth of knowledge/experience, perhaps offering design or prepress suggestions, paper suggestions, and suggestions on how to save money in the process.


    1. The printing broker might know where (in any number of states in the US) to get the best prices for the exact kind of specialty work that you are doing (maybe an ultra-short-run of posters with scratch-off coating on multiple irregular areas of the poster). (An individual printer has deep knowledge about his own shop, but a print broker has a broader awareness in many cases of the offerings of printers across the country or even the world.)


    1. The print broker might do press inspections for you (although this is usually only necessary for the most color-critical work now).


  1. If something goes wrong with a job—and things do go wrong occasionally—your print broker can be your advocate, speaking for you from a position of knowledge to get your printer to correct the problem or extend a discount on the work.

If your print broker just places an order for you and marks up the final price, perhaps you would do well to go directly to your own printers. But if she or he adds value in the ways noted above, a print broker can be a real asset.

Is it worth it to pay a premium? Actually, this doesn’t even need to be an issue. If your commercial printing broker gets lower prices than you can (perhaps from a trade printer or just from a lower-priced vendor in a part of the country with overall lower prices), and then adds value to the process with her/his knowledge and experience, you may just get the best deal of all: lower prices plus superior service, all in addition to the skilled, quality work of the custom printing supplier himself.

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